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Literary Stars Shine

Faculty Reading: alum reads from coming-of-age novel


Boston University’s annual Faculty Reading has become one of the city’s leading literary events. Featuring members of the Creative Writing Program, the evening offers a chance to hear celebrated writers read poems, plays, and novels—many of them new works.

This year’s reading, taking place tonight at 6 p.m., includes Allegra Goodman, a College of Arts & Sciences adjunct assistant professor, who will read from her latest novel, The Cookbook Collector, and National Book Award winner Ha Jin (GRS’94), a CAS professor of creative writing, who will read from his soon-to-be-published novel Nanjing Requiem. Ronan Noone (GRS’01), a CAS adjunct assistant professor of creative writing and author of several prize-winning plays, will read monologues from his play Little Black Dress, which will be produced in New York in May.

Other readers are Creative Writing Program director Leslie Epstein, David Ferry, a CAS lecturer and award-winning poet and translator, Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and another former poet laureate Louise Glück, a CAS visiting professor of creative writing, and as special guest, prize-winning novelist Sigrid Nunez, who will be a CAS visiting lecturer next fall. Nunez will read from her latest novel, Salvation City.

In keeping with a time-honored tradition, tonight’s event will also feature a recent Creative Writing Program alum. Maya Sloan (CFA’99, GRS’07) will read from her critically praised coming-of-age novel High Before Homeroom, which she is currently adapting for the big screen.

BU Today chatted with Sloan about her novel, her years at BU as an undergraduate and graduate student, and the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay.

BU Today: Before becoming a writer, you performed as clowns and princesses at hundreds of children’s parties. What was that experience like?
Sloan: I really loved it. Being a party performer is a great job because it prepares you for pretty much anything. I met a disturbing number of grown men with clown fetishes, was told I was “fatter than our Cinderella last year,” worked at a Palestinian-Israel “Peace Picnic” that dissolved into a fistfight, stuff you’d write about and be told it was too farfetched.

You get to the point where you’ve done it so long that you stop caring what people think: you’ll pump gas as Dora the Explorer, smoke a cigarette as Snow White, parade into a Wal-Mart dressed as Supergirl on a random Tuesday afternoon.

What led you to put down the greasepaint and take up the pen?
I always said I’d quit at 30, and I did. No offense to any party performers out there, but an old clown just seems really sad to me. You meet these lifers, and they are at the point where they actually hate the kids. And once you’ve done a party with a bitter 50-year-old guy with a beer belly in a skintight Power Rangers costume—well, I let that be lesson to me.

Tell us about your novel High Before Homeroom. How did you get the idea for the book?
A lot of people aren’t aware, but the Southwest, where I was born and raised, has been ravaged by a crystal methamphetamine epidemic. Entire towns have been wiped out. Meth is cheap and all the products used to make it can be found at ordinary drugstores. All you need is land to make it, so it has taken off in rural communities. I’ve seen the aftermath of meth usage firsthand, and it is awful.

I was drawn to the topic. I just wanted to tell it in a new way. And I wanted there to be humor. A funny meth novel seemed so impossible, but then I got a crazy idea: what if a “loser” teenage boy decides to become a drug addict on purpose? He is in love with a girl who only dates “bad boys.” He figures he’ll get addicted, sent to rehab, and come back cool enough to win her over. The whole concept was so twisted. It seemed like something impossible to write, so of course, I had to try.

The novel has been optioned for a feature film, with you writing the screenplay. What particular challenges are there in adapting your own work?
Screenwriting is such a different beast than fiction writing. The fact that I wrote the source material isn’t a problem. If anything, BU taught me fearlessness in editing my own work. What is more difficult is writing in a more prescribed structure. There is more room to breathe in fiction, but I love the challenge of screenwriting.

Reviewers have described your writing as “cinematic.” Do you agree?
I love books. I also love TV and movies. At this point, I’ve taught at nine universities in five states. And in meeting so many college students, I’ve realized they are so inundated with media that very few of them read for fun. I once had a student in LA—and needless to say, she was not your ordinary student, but actually starred on a cheesy MTV reality show—who listened to me rave about Anton Chekhov on the first day and then asked sweetly, “Can you bring him in as a guest speaker?” Reading for fun? Not a priority for most of them.

I’ve found TV shows and movies to be really helpful in getting these students interested in plot, theme, character, getting excited about literature in general. Pop culture is a common language and equalizer. Yes, I’ve lectured on the structural parallels between The Bad Girls Club and Dostoyevsky, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And yes, I’m a fan of both. So I think that my work has been infused with those elements.

You tell a funny story about taking an undergraduate fiction writing class here with Leslie Epstein. Can you recount it?
I’m a huge fan of Leslie Epstein! He’s one of the best writing teachers in America, and a brilliant writer as well. But I wasn’t ready for him when I was an undergrad. At the time, I was getting a BFA in theater studies. I’d always known I could write. It came easily to me, and teachers had praised my writing in high school. I had no idea that I wanted to be a writer. I had no idea what I wanted to be in general. So I applied to Leslie’s class because I figured it would be an easy A. I got in, wrote my first short story in one night, and went to class the next day, confident he’d say I was a genius. He ripped it to shreds. I mean, he was just being honest. He said I was a “natural writer” and had the talent, but I was “lazy” and “not yet serious.” I was really pissed off. But his words stayed with me for years. And then, 12 years later, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a good one. So, of course, I applied to the program to study with him. And that was one of the best decisions I ever made.

How did your Creative Writing Program MFA help you as a writer?
I’ve met tons of graduates from MFA creative writing programs, and I can say in all honesty that BU’s is among the best in the nation. It’s also one of the most challenging. You are pushed to write in one or two years more than you ever imagined you were capable of. And the feedback can be tough. But if you are able to let go of your ego, take the criticism, and try to learn from it—well, it shocked me how my work grew in my time at BU. That program was a gift to me, and I swear they aren’t paying me to say this. I wish.

What was your reaction when you were invited to participate tonight with writers like Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky, Ha Jim, and Epstein?
Ummmmm…shock? I looked at the list and a line from that Sesame Street song started running through my head: “One of these things is not like the other.” I mean, these guys are rock stars and I have one measly book out. The only way I can justify this is that I’m an example of what the program does for so many students: it makes us into actual writers who write.

For Leslie’s mentorship, I will be forever grateful. While in the program, I taught as a BU Scholar in a program for inner-city kids created by Robert Pinsky. That experience fired my passion for teaching, and Robert taught me that famous writers don’t have to fall into a cliché of being pretentious or self-absorbed; they can be good people who use their success to make the world a better place. And I actually came up with the concept for my novel, and wrote the first draft, in Ha Jin’s novella class. So, reading with the people who taught and inspired me—well, it is a huge honor and pretty freaking great.

What will you be reading at tonight’s event?
I’ll have to peruse my books and consider the options. Oh, wait. I’ve only written one book. Guess I’ll read from that.

Do you have any advice for the aspiring writers likely to be in the audience tonight?
I guess the best thing I’ve learned—and it took a long time to figure this out—is to find your own way. Anyone who tells you there is a secret to being a good writer—a word count you must meet every day, a way you must write—take that with a grain of salt. Listen to them, seriously consider what they have to say, and try it out. But ultimately, find what works for you. Break the rules. Just make sure you learn what they are first. And read a lot.

Hear Maya Sloan read from her novel High Before Homeroom here.

The annual Creative Writing Program Faculty Reading will take place in the SMG Auditorium, 595 Commonwealth Ave., at 6 p.m. tonight, April 12. The event is free and open to the public. More information is available at 617-353-2510, by email at crwr@bu.edu, or here.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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